Academic journal article Criticism

Airport Memory: Recalling Vietnam from the Terminal in Andrew Pham's Travel Writing

Academic journal article Criticism

Airport Memory: Recalling Vietnam from the Terminal in Andrew Pham's Travel Writing

Article excerpt

Our interest in [places of memory] where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred ata particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a breaf with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been tom-but tom in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists.

-Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire" (1989)1

In his essay collection A Theory of Flight (2012), Andrew Pham recounts the many ways flight has marked his life. The "flight" of the title signals his family's flight from Vietnam in 1977 and his later retreat from his family, his father's anger and daunting demands. It refers to Andrew's hobby of coastal hang gliding and to fleeing from difficult circumstances and ex-girlfriends. But it also signifies commercial air travel. Out of college, Pham works as an aerospace engineer for United Airlines, a career he finds secure but suffocating. His "principal dangers" at United, he writes, were "being bored and falling asleep driving to work."2 He resigns from the airline and begins writing and traveling, first to Vietnam and then around the world. In these essays, Pham characterizes flight as burdened with meaning, a reminder of his family history, life-altering decisions, and sense of dislocation. Nevertheless, A Theory of Flight concludes on an altogether different note. Pham narrates a brief scene at an airport terminal. He does not name the airport or the destination, only noting that it is a "solo" flight "without complications" or goodbyes. He remarks, "I'm in the international terminal. Why do they call it that? All terminals are new beginnings. . . . All at once, it is as easy as turning the page. I step into the plane and into the blue vigor."3 This final scene contradicts the sentiment of the essays that precede it. Whereas the earlier essays represent flight as symptomatic of life's constraints, as an alwaysunreal release from the past, Pham here renders flight as a clean break, a new beginning freed from memory. All he needs to do is turn the page of his life story. What then is the airport's relation to memory? Does it directly or indirectly summon the past or does it liberate us from memory entirely? In what ways might the airport function as, in Pierre Nora's words, a "[place of memory] where memory crystallizes" and conjures a torn past? In his essays, as in his best-selling travel memoir Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (1999), Pham's rendering of flight is contradictory as it relates to memory, sometimes evoking it and other times leading away from it all together toward an unburdened future. If Pham does advance a theory of flight, as his title suggests, it is an ambiguous one.

Airports and airplanes are for many critics key sites for analyzing cultures of modernity, postmodernity, and "supermodernity." They are understood to be locations from which we might trace the complex movements of the global economy, transnational cultural exchange, and the far-reaching surveillance systems of the United States. Despite the cultural embeddedness of airports, however, they are often named as "non-places" existing outside of memory, history, and "normal time." Yet it is precisely the in-betweenness of airports that makes them critical sites for the consolidation of memory. Who and what am I departing from? Who and what am I returning to? They are, paradoxically, places without memory and for memory. This is the case in Pham's Catfish and Mandala, in which air travel is imagined to lack memory while evoking it all the same. In analyzing Pham's memoir, I first build on the work of Marita Sturken to theorize the remembering carried out in airports and on airplanes. Whereas Sturken goes beyond Nora's theory of places of memory to scrutinize other memory "technologies," I focus on the remembering done where memory is perceived to be entirely absent. …

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